With more than 90 bands playing on five stages, it was impossible to see everything at the seventh Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. So what follows are some of the plentiful
Billboard's Jonathan Cohen, Todd Martens and Brian Cohen hit the California desert for the seventh Coachella Valley Music & Arts festival, which drew more than 100,000 people for two days of music by Depeche Mode, Tool, Massive Attack, Madonna, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kanye West and Franz Ferdinand. With more than 90 bands playing on five stages, it was impossible to see everything, so what follows are some of the plentiful highlights, plus a few disappointments, from the most anticipated of all American music festivals.
HIGHLIGHTS AND HEROICS:
Massive Attack: Playing one of their first U.S. shows in eight years, Massive Attack did not disappoint with a powerful set led by material from its 1998 album, "Mezzanine." Cocteau Twins vocalist Liz Fraser made a rare appearance to sing such tracks as "Teardrop" and "Black Milk," while Horace Andy took the mic for "Man Next Door" and "Angel." The set also featured "Unfinished Symphony," "Inertia Creeps," "Future Proof" and "Safe From Harm," the latter topped with a sizzling psychedelic finish. The group's ominous, bottom-heavy sound has aged surprisingly well, foreshadowing good things to come from its in-progress next studio album.
Scissor Sisters: Summoning the true party spirit of Coachella, Scissor Sisters proved a perfect closer on Sunday at the smaller outdoor stage as thousands grooved along with them. Everything was cranked up to 11 during the New York band's set, from vocalist Jake Shears' tight gold pants and Ana Matronic's bizarre comic stage banter to the steady stream of unabashed dance pop tunes like "Take Your Mama," "T*** on the Radio," "Laura," "Mary" and their hit cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." In many ways, the Sisters are like a gay classic rock band, channeling Elton John and the Bee Gees instead of the usual Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath (it's no surprise that Elton himself plays piano on their upcoming album). One of the highlights of the weekend.
Daft Punk: The French techno duo disappointed many fans with its 2005 album "Human After All," which lacked much of the joyful dance music of its 2001 predecessor, "Discovery." But tunes from "Human" sounded amazing during the group's Saturday evening set in the Sahara Tent, particularly "Technologic" and "Television Rules the Nation." The crowd went bananas for evergreens like "Around the World," "Da Funk" and "One More Time," which still sound like pop hits from a future century. The otherworldly vibe was only enhanced by the pair's shiny robot costumes and a pummeling light show.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Frenetic Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontman Karen O trotted out one of her trademark sparkling stage outfits (and later, removed pieces of it) for the band's early evening Sunday set on the main stage. The group opened with "Cheated Hearts" from its new album "Show Your Bones" and also played new single "Gold Lion," "Phenomena," "Black Tongue," "Turn Into" and its breakthrough hit, "Maps." Her fingerless gloved-hands clenched around the microphone, Karen brought forth a death-defying scream on "Fancy" and dropped the device fully into her mouth during "Art Star."
Gnarls Barkley: With its sweet, soulful single "Crazy" a certified smash, Gnarls Barkley came into Coachella with high expectations for just its second live performance. Luckily, the group led by Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse didn't take itself too seriously, arriving on stage dressed like characters from "The Wizard of Oz." Cee-Lo eventually doffed his costume and finished the set wearing just a wife-beater undershirt. A full band, string section and backing vocalists added texture to tracks like "Transformer," "Smiley Face" and the disturbing "Necromancing." but it was sad to see much of the crowd leave after "Crazy" was played.
My Morning Jacket: Playing opposite Kanye West, My Morning Jacket was a highlight of the smaller outdoor theater in the late afternoon on Saturday, its members thrashing their bearded heads to rockers like "Mageetah," "Wordless Chorus," "One Big Holiday" and "Gideon." It must have been difficult for MMJ to rein in its tendency to stretch out songs in a concert setting, as "Run Thru" and "What a Wonderful Man" were more compact than usual. Still, the group left nothing to the imagination during the stoner jam "Off the Record," which shows a clear evolution in sound from straight-up Southern rock to a much more ambitious, less guitar-centric approach.
Lady Sovereign: Coachella has become a showcase of sorts for young U.K. rappers. Dizzee Rascal and M.I.A. have used the event to stage their first major U.S. performances, and this year the tiny Lady Sovereign was who the Brits had to offer. Like the others, she comes to the U.S. loaded with hype. Live, she's the most exciting of the bunch, possessing a hyper-fast delivery built for a teenage house party. Lady Sovereign kept the crowd dancing and laughing, with outlandish facial expressions and the bubblegum raps of "Public Warning" and "Hoodie."
Art Brut: On the complete opposite extreme of Tool's main stage doom and gloom was the downright hilarious rock'n'roll celebration of Art Brut. The punky Brit-rockers opened their set with a bit of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and then went straight into its should-be arena hit "Formed a Band." Art Brut singer Eddie Argos doesn't look or act the rock star -- clumsily using the microphone cord as a jump rope and owning a moustache looks modeled after Andy Kaufman. But he was one of the most arresting vocalists of the evening, improvising verses and admonishing the audience to go home and start a band. He made fun of ex-girlfriends and his lack of sexual prowess, and every one of his out-of-shape drop kicks into mid-air inspired a round of cheers.
Wolf Parade: After a long delay dealing with uncooperative equipment, Wolf Parade delighted a packed crowd in the Mojave Tent on Sunday with selections from its 2005 Sub Pop debut, "Apologies to the Queen Mary." The group often sounds like a genetic crossbreed between the Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse, but songs like "We Built Another World," "Grounds for Divorce" and "Shine a Light" made up in energy what they lacked in originality.
The Duke Spirit: At a festival full of up-and-coming rock bands, the Duke Spirit stood out thanks to its confident attitude and tightly wound, PJ Harvey-meets-Sonic Youth sound. Frontwoman Liela Moss brought romance-starved tension to tracks like "Love Is an Unfamiliar Name," "Lion Rip" and "Red Weather"; the band merits extra points for playing despite having its equipment recently stolen in Portland, Ore. Bassist Toby Butler was also onstage despite having his right arm in a sling.
Amadou & Mariam: Bringing more of a worldly flavor to fest was blind West African duo Amadou & Mariam, performing here with a full band. The act drew in salsa and reggae influences, turning a stuffed tent into a playfully old-school dance party. Multiple songs threatened to veer into jam-band territory, but the mood stayed buoyantly light.
Atmosphere: Headlining the second outdoor stage on Saturday night was Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere, bringing Rhymesayers labelmate Brother Ali along for its Coachella performance. The set focused on the band's most recent and best album, "You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having," as well as some older cuts such as "God Loves Ugly." Rapper Slug brings an in-your-face attitude to his sometimes self-deprecating rhymes, and always stayed mindful of the audience, even stopping mid-song to help a heat-stroked fan.
Ladytron: Electronic British act Ladytron unveiled a more rock-focused sound that it showcased on last year's "Witching Hour" (Rykodisc). The keyboard-heavy quartet has added a guitarist for its current tour, and even an older cut like "Playgirl" packed a little bit more of shoegazer punch, with dreamy guitar lines gracing its colorful wall of synths.
Madonna: No Coachella artist booking has ever caused more controversy than 'ole Madge, but it's safe to say no artist has ever drawn a bigger crowd for their performance at the festival than she did on Sunday night in the Sahara Tent. The Material Girl was supposed to go on at 8:10 but as that time came and went, the crowed repeatedly booed, as the space inside the tent grew smaller and smaller. Madonna finally pranced out front 20 minutes late to the strains of her recent hit single "Hung Up," and proceeded to play just five more songs before exiting amid a giant reproduction of her new album cover on the digital screens.
"Ray of Light" was a nice touch, and "I Love New York" gave her the chance to slag off President Bush. By "Let It Will Be," Madonna was writing on the floor, having removed her pants to reveal a skimpy one-piece outfit. She then asked the crowd, "Does my a** look okay?" The closer was the oldie "Everybody"; no "Into the Groove," no "Holiday" and not even a nice "Like a Prayer" for the faithful.
Was the performance a fun novelty? Sure. But it was also a major distraction and a big of logistical nightmare (there was no other act playing on the main outdoor stage at the time, ensuring that the large majority of the crowd was packed into the Sahara Tent or its general surrounding area). If anything it proved that no one act can sink a Coachella, but it raised some questions about the types of artists we might see performing there in the future.
Depeche Mode: Saturday's main stage headliner got off to a rousing start with three standouts from its new album, "Playing the Angel": "A Pain That I'm Used To," the single "Precious" and the vaguely hopeful "Suffer Well." The group remains quite a visual spectacle as well, its stage decorated in a "Star Trek" meets off-Broadway style that featured a giant space pod with the word "pain" flashing atop. And despite his decades of hard living, frontman Dave Gahan somehow has the physique that allows for a shirtless vest/tight pants approach, replete with plenty of crotch-grabbing.
However, once Depeche entered the middle portion of its set, the tempos got slower and slower and the energy was zapped. There's nothing particularly wrong with tracks like "Stripped," "Home," "In Your Room" and "Nothing's Impossible," but when they're played in succession, the depression meter inches up toward the breaking point. Mega-hits like "Personal Jesus" and "Enjoy the Silence" regained the crowd's attention, but it was a bit too late to rescue the set from mediocrity.
The Rakes: The Rakes did their best to finish off Saturday's Mojave Tent schedule in style despite finding themselves playing in front of possibly the thinnest crowd of the entire festival. The London-based group chugged through crisp and taut selections from its recently V2 debut album "Capture/Release," blending hints Bowie and Wire with Strokes-esque song structures.
Singer Alan Donohoe couldn't help but slag off Depeche Mode for stealing away the attention of most of the festival goers, but his own group did little to distinguish itself from the stream of England's post-Franz Ferdinand dance punk flood already saturating American audiences. Although perhaps a bit more tuneful in places than the rest of the pack, the quartet's requisite brittle guitar riffs and brisk drumming made Saturday night in the desert feel even chillier than usual.